METAIRIE, La. — Bill Johnson has coached football since 1980, including in the NFL every year since 2001, and he has a feel for players.
He knows when they’re engaged, when they’re checked in on the task at hand and he knows when they’re not fully focused on training camp practices.
And this year, Johnson just has that feeling coursing through his body.
“I’d say so,” he said. “I’ve been here five years. You have a feel for when we’re in a groove and I feel like we’re in a groove.”
Fourteen days into training camp and on the day the Saints host Kansas City at 7 p.m. in both teams’ preseason opener, it’s easy to see why.
Sean Payton is back and while that story seemingly ceased to be one once camp began, the pace of practice and accountability for mistakes have become noticeable differences between 2013 and, yes, 2012.
“The momentum of an offseason of being refreshed by coach Payton’s energy … there was a lot of dragging last year of like man, what is going on?” right tackle Zach Strief said. “What’s happening? (There was) uncertainty. Players like routine and they like certainty.”
Payton’s absence and the heavy toll the looming suspensions and then appeals took played their part in the 7-9 season. But it wasn’t those things alone, Strief said.
It was the proverbial snowball effect of everything.
“When you’re in a locker room that has a lot of pride and expectations – we don’t ever expect to be 7-9 – it’s hard to go through that season,” Strief said. “Mentally it’s just a little wearing to go through that year and be like, man, we’re not winning games. We’re not performing.”
But the great thing about the end of one season is that it heralds in the beginning of the next and Strief believes there’s momentum building in New Orleans towards something special.
“With a new season comes a new hope,” he said. “Everyone right now feels like they can win a Super Bowl, all 32 teams. I think the momentum of feeling like, hey, we get another chance to prove ourselves. Not to say last year was a fluke but to say we’re better than we showed.”
It began with offseason workouts, safety Malcolm Jenkins said. Everyone, including grizzled veterans, was involved and fully participated.
So, has Jenkins seen this before?
“In 2009 it was the same way,” Jenkins offered. “You look at your roster and you see you have a talented roster, but everybody has a talented roster, everybody has dreams and everybody works hard in training camp. Sometimes there’s just something different you can’t put your hand on.”
Jenkins, though, put the brakes on claiming that success in the first two weeks will equal greatness. But he believes there’s a correlation.
“It could just be how the grass is cut right now,” the safety said. “But we have the personnel, we have the coaches to make it happen and we just got to continue to get better day in and day out.”